Letters from a UD atheist: questioning continued

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While engaging in open dialogue about ones beliefs may seem like a daunting task, one must persist and keep the door of discussion open. Photo by Paulina Martin.

Last semester, The University News published a commentary article in which I declared my atheism and called on the UD community to re-examine the essential question of God’s existence.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, sparking meaningful conversations with both friends and strangers, some of which continue even today. I thank everyone who took the time to express their compliments, but more importantly to share their thoughts on the issue in question.

I must admit to one shortcoming of the article which has bothered me since its publication: Compelling as the call to questioning I expressed may have been, it was ambiguous. It advocated “meaningful dialogue,” without ever specifying what that looks like in practice. Where, when and how should meaningful dialogue take place? Should my Catholic classmates suddenly turn to each other and play devil’s advocate? Should professors bring it up in class? Should someone organize formal debates?

These are questions to which I provided no answers, because at the time I had none. I fear that this lack of a concrete platform for dialogue has led to a dissipation of the message I wished to drive home. While simply shouting, “Question your beliefs!” into a crowd may momentarily pique some interest, it would be foolish to expect any long-term, meaningful impact to come of it.

Allow me to reiterate how sincerely I wish to make the question of God, and religion in general, an object of serious discussion. I wish not to make a splash but to open a door, and to keep it open.

In a published response the week after my original article, my friend and classmate, Titus Willard, pointed out that if I want to start such a discussion, I must play an active role in doing so, as I am the only vocal opposition in a community of believers. Though I strongly reject the assertion that atheists carry the epistemological burden of proof, in a practical sense I think he was right to point out that in this particular context, I ought to make the first move. I accept that challenge.

In that same article, Willard suggested beginning with Aquinas’ Proof of Efficient Causes.

Aquinas’ argument regarding the causes essentially flows as follows: Everything in the universe appears to have a cause — that is, everything is the effect of something that came before it. It is impossible for there to be an infinite regression of causes into the past because then there would be no first cause, and, therefore, no cause from which every other cause follows. There must therefore be a first cause, and this we call God.

First, I do not question the deductive logic of the argument — questioning Aquinas’ logic can be a dangerous game. I take issue only with the final words: “and this we call God.” Prior to this pivotal clause, Aquinas argues only that the universe has a first efficient cause that exists outside the chain of causes that constitute the universe. The argument says nothing, however, of the nature of that cause, or why it must necessarily be God.

One might respond that God is the only thing that can exist outside the universe in order to cause it, and therefore the first cause is necessarily God. But by positing anything about God in the first place — in this case, that He is the only thing that can exist outside the universe  —  one employs premises that must necessarily be reached independently of the efficient cause argument. Again, the argument itself says nothing of the nature of the first cause but merely assigns the name “God.”

If the argument simply ended with “… there must therefore be a first cause,” then there would be no issue. But it would not constitute an argument for God’s existence; it would only posit an ambiguous “first cause” about which we know nothing other than that it caused the universe to exist. Strictly speaking, it is only by association with the name “God” that the argument becomes at all relevant to what we traditionally think of as God — that is, anything beyond a simple “first cause” of the universe.

This is admittedly only the beginning of a response to the Efficient Cause argument, which is itself only one of many ways to discuss the question of God. I hope it has at least shown more concretely how one might engage in the kind of dialogue for which I so sincerely, yet ambiguously called in my original article.

If you want to engage in discussions of this kind in a more appropriate forum, where you can listen as well as be heard, I have just launched a blog called Skeptic’s Point (skepticspoint.com) for precisely that purpose. So, if my last article was enough to stir the questioning spirit within you, do not let it fade out just yet … this party is only just getting started!

 

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